Understanding the relationship between social camouflaging in autism and safety behaviours in social anxiety in autistic and non-autistic adolescents.
Lei J., Leigh E., Charman T., Russell A., Hollocks MJ.
BACKGROUND: Social camouflaging (hereafter camouflaging) in autism includes factors such as masking and compensating for one's neurodevelopmental differences, and to assimilate or 'fit in' with non-autistic peers. Efforts to hide one's authentic self and autism traits (masking) resemble impression management (IM) in safety behaviours identified in Clark and Wells' (1995) cognitive model of social anxiety (SA). This study explores the relationship between camouflaging in autism and safety behaviours in SA among autistic and non-autistic adolescents. METHODS: One hundred fifteen adolescents (14-19 years) with (n = 61; 36 female) and without (n = 54; 37 female) a clinical diagnosis of autism matched on age and SA symptom severity were recruited from clinics, schools and online. Adolescents completed online measures including autism traits, SA symptoms, camouflaging behaviours, SA-related safety behaviours and SA-related negative cognitions. Partial and bivariate Pearson's correlations and structural equation modelling were used to understand the relationship between camouflaging, safety behaviours, autism traits and SA in both groups. Exploratory factor analysis assessed item-level factor cross-loadings between camouflaging and safety behaviours. RESULTS: Across both groups, masking and IM were significantly associated with SA symptom severity, not autism traits, via SA-related social cognitions. Exploratory factor analysis indicated construct overlap across masking, assimilation, IM and avoidance behaviours and identified factors analogous to self-focused attention, social avoidance and mental rehearsal identified in the Clark and Wells' (1995) model of SA. CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study using group-matched design to identify that masking (factor in social camouflaging) and IM both relate to SA in autistic and non-autistic adolescents. Assessment and formulation of construct overlap between masking and IM may inform psychoeducation and adaptation of SA treatment for autistic adolescents.